Working Women in Indiana County

“In those days, women didn’t go out to work.”  This statement, often made when speaking of the first half of the twentieth century, was for many quite true.  It was a time when women were less likely to be involved in unions than in clubs; significantly, these were concerned less with labor and political activities than social etiquette and hygiene.  For example, the Indiana Evening Gazette reported on a 1905 club meeting where women discussed the problems of “expectorating on the streets” of Indiana.  Newspaper advertisements directed at women then were less concerned with promoting the image of a competent workwoman than with beauty and how to get rid of “sunken eyes and hallow cheeks…and the ravages of dyspepsia.”

jane leonard
Jane E. Leonard – Preceptress at Indiana Normal School

While much of this public image is true, underlying the illusion of women at leisure was the basic reality that many if not most women had to work, especially before marriage or in the widowhood.  The penury of some might be dramatized by tragic news headlines as “Woman Killed on Railroad.”  In December 1905, a 35 year old childless widow of one week was struck and killed instantly while picking coal along railroad tracks near her New Florence home.  In that very year another news release reported the tragic suicide of an unemployed manicurist, a 25 year old Blairsville “girl” [woman] who drank carbolic acid in her room at the YMCA. Of course these were exceptions, but there were many, many women who had to find work, and only a few could find employment in the two occupations generally believed to be most desirable for young women – teaching and nursing.

Other occupations were available to women in the Indiana area. Young girls from the farming community or from town often found plentiful work as cooks, waitresses, chambermaids, upstairs girls and laundry girls.  Though hard and heavy, this work was quite respectable female employment. For many years, the Normal School and the town of Indiana itself offered a large number of such jobs.  Insurance maps of the town dating from the turn of the century attest to the existence of hotels and restaurants for both mealtime and overnight guests, and at these women could find work.  Occasionally some women tested their entrepreneurial talents if they and their husbands were proprietors.  Mr. Long, a native Indianian, recalls with obvious admiration how his mother once helped in directing the West Indiana House, later the Houck Hotel.  While his father took care of the office, buying merchandise and paying bills, his mother interviewed, hired and directed the chambermaids, waitresses and cooks.  Her managerial duties were demanding for the business was extensive.  Mr. Long remembers that “…if they didn’t have 100 at noon, they thought it was a poor day.”

Work as governesses and live-in maids also existed, but its desirability naturally varied according to the attitude of individual employers.  While at times a live-in maid could be treated as a family member, she could also find it was lonely, demanding, and tiring work.  One Indiana woman remembers cooking and making bread for an entire family, while simultaneously acting as a governess for eight children, including infants.  Years later she still remembers the consternation of her employer when she asked for so high a salary – $8.00 a week.  Seamstress skill also offered extremely good employment for those with the necessary skills.  Some women were so expert that they undertook the task of outfitting entire families, perhaps even spending a week or two in homes of well to do citizens of Indiana until the season’s outfitting was done.

Less skilled jobs as “Hello Girls” or telephone operators were equally acceptable for women.  “Hello Girls” were aware that they had important jobs in maintaining communications, especially in emergencies.  When in 1904 the gas in Indiana was shut off for two hours, the news reported “Hello Girls Swamped.”  All of Indiana’s 200 switchboard plugs were flooded with calls of inquiry, the board becoming “…a veritable cobweb of connections.”  For a long time telephone operators also sounded the town fire alarm.  Mrs. Huber of Fulton Run Road, for a time an operator during the 1920s, recalls with amusement how lines were always jammed with calls from the curious asking for information about the fire.

Most of these jobs fell into traditional patterns of occupation, but occasionally even at the turn of the century female stereotypes were shattered much to the surprise of the community.  In 1904, a Miss M. Margaretta Hodge, a resident of Blairsville, was certified to practice pharmacy.  The following winter a news story in the Indiana Evening Gazette praised Mrs. DeVers, a Blairsville rural delivery carrier who was sometimes assisted by her daughter.  The article commended her for she had not missed a single day’s delivery throughout a very severe winter.  Expending the ultimate praise, the article noted that she made “…as good time as her male colleagues.”

head nurse
Head nurse’s private apartment – Indiana Normal School

As the Indiana business community expanded during the 1910s new jobs as clerks and salesgirls became available to women.  Stores such as Bon Ton, Troutmans, Luxenbergs, and McCrorys placed help wanted ads for “girls,” often specifically demanding “good girls.”  In fact in 1917 one ad for a female clerk required that she still be living at home with her parents in Indiana.  Heavier factory work also employed women of the area but only on a limited scale.  Women worked at the Dye Works, the Indiana Candy works, the Diamond Glass Company, the Macaroni Factory, the Indiana Steam Laundry, and King Razor Manufacturing Company, all during the 1910s.

Surprisingly, World War I made no perceptible impact on either the labor market or on attitudes about working women.  At most, news items urged women to do volunteer work to help the war effort.  On May 10, 1917 the Indiana Evening Gazette printed an article encouraging “girls” to make sacrifices for their country.  Here was no call for bravery, or even the study of nursing, or perhaps the replacement of draftees in the labor market.  Instead the article praised one young woman for rejecting five proposals of marriage and then encouraging her beaus to join the service.  The final admonition, “It isn’t fair to remain idle….Every woman worthy of the name will offer her services.”  Now was a call for service without pay.

While the postwar period, especially the 1920s, is touted as an era of economic and political emancipation for women, locally there appeared to be little change in basic attitudes.  The short dresses and bobbed hair of women of the county projected the image of the modern female, but both men and women continued to view women’s work as, at best, a temporary situation filling the hiatus between school and marriage.  However, while the county job market underwent no dramatic change, some companies such as the Diamond Glass Company, King Leather Company and the Indiana Textile Mills did need an increasing supply of working women.

For forty years the glass company in Indiana had been absorbing women into its work force.  During World War I, glass production had boomed.  In the 1920s the Diamond Glass Company employed almost 100 women, or girls as they were then called.  Women inspected the glass, polished, painted, and packed the product which Indianians still remember with great pride.  One former Indiana resident remembers the summer months when she and other youngsters walked across the fields from Wayne Avenue just to watch the young ladies at the factory.  Each woman with a small turn-table in front of her decorated glass with pretty leaves and flowers.  Unfortunately, this employment ended abruptly in 1931 when fire ravaged the plant.  If men found it hard to replace their jobs in those depression years, it was extremely difficult for women.  Some area employers openly discouraged married women and those under eighteen years of age from seeking jobs which men might otherwise take.

Another long standing company, the King Leather Factory, supplied much of the growing market for female workers in the 1920s.  In operation since 1910 it had produced a variety of leather items ranging from money belts to pocketbooks employing primarily women.  In the decade following the war approximately 50 to 75 women were employed at its barn-like factory on North 10th Street.  Only three men worked there; one owned the company and the other two were supervisors.  It was essentially women who produced the product.  On the lower level of the plant where the leather was stored, cutting machines were operated.  On the upper level the process was divided into different rooms where women operated electric sewing machines, stamped the product with gold lettering, and then sorted and packed the final product.

Women learned the different jobs quickly, even without past experience.  As Mrs. Zellman of Ernest remembers, even the sewing “…didn’t take much training.”  As in most firms of the time, few women aspired to managerial work, but those who had long been at the factory were sometimes assigned to supervise the training and work of the younger girls.

The atmosphere at the factory was described by a former worker as “…just like a family.”  Much credit for this was attributed to Mr. King who gave treats to the women at holidays, even joining them in song during those festive times.  In addition to the paternal atmosphere, a pleasant lunch break also stimulated the feeling of togetherness.  A newly widowed woman who lived near the factory began selling vegetable soup and crackers in her own home.  It soon became so popular that instead of bringing lunches, many women ate at her house.  They enjoyed her expanding menu of baked beans and sandwiches, as well as her hospitality.

The newest job opportunity of the Post World War I period was at what longtime residents still call the silk mill, the Indiana Textile Mill, which began operating in the late 1920s.  Probably influenced by the changing market of the Flapper Era which revealed women’s legs, silk mill produced top quality, high fashion stockings.  Unlike today’s stretch stockings, the high fashion stocking was sewn from separately woven pieces and made exactly to the size and shape of the leg.  In this company, as in the Leather Factory, the basic work force was women employed as seamers, loopers, and inspectors.  Business was so good at the silk mill that it operated on three shifts.  Former employees estimate each shift consisted of about 75 to 100 people, ¾ of them women.  Employees enjoyed working there too and felt that job conditions were good in spite of minor problems such as cotton dust from threads.  Though it was an exception for anyone to develop an allergic reaction to the silk itself, it could occur.  At least one woman’s hands became so sensitive to the material that they actually began to bleed, requiring profuse use of ointment every evening.  In spite of the pain, this woman continued to work at the silk mill for she had a family to support.

World War II dramatically reshaped the attitude of many Indianians, male and female, towards working women.  Suddenly, women were encouraged to work in civilian and especially in defense industries.  They entered the work force with renewed self-esteem for as one former defense industry supervisor notes, “They knew they were needed.”  In fact, women were so much in demand that companies such as Acme Dye in Latrobe provided buses to transport women from Indiana and Clymer to its Latrobe factory where they worked with explosive powders and bullets.

In Indiana County itself, defense industry work was soon underway at Federal Labs in Tunnelton, and at Indiana on Indian Springs Road and at the newly opened plant near South 13th Street, in the same building that had previously housed the silk mill.  Work plans for the South 13th Street plant illustrate the new trends at Federal Labs which moved quickly to mobilize the female labor force.  As William Durno, a long time superintendent there notes, the company immediately began “…gearing up for the high speed production.”  Original plans called for one shift of 64 “girls” and five men plus about 6 guards and some government employed inspectors who were usually women.  Soon this was expanded to a three shift operation.  Women worked on the production line, mixed and handled explosives and assembled hand grenades.  They did everything which once only men had done, unless restricted by state law.

shorthand students
Shorthand students at commercial college during World War I.

Indiana women quickly learned of the new opportunities available at Federal Labs and as William Durno smilingly recalls, “If they walked in breathing, we hired them.”  As far as testing goes there was only one primary question, “Are you afraid?”  A timid person was a hazard.  However, during World War II, women maintained a good safety record.  In retrospect, women don’t remember trying to conform to a Rosie the Riveter image.  It was just common sense to wear overalls and wrap one’s hair in a bandanna.  All jewelry was expressly forbidden – static electricity would set off explosives.  One person remarked that it could be difficult to convince some women to take off sentimental jewelry such as wedding rings.  Most interviewees remember that workers were well aware of hazards and quickly complied with safety regulations.  A couple of Indiana women recalled an incident in which one worker let wisps of hair show only to lose some hair and even skin when the hair got caught in the machinery.  An accident such as this was an exception.  Throughout the course of the war, there were no major injuries in Indiana County war industries.

Besides convincing both men and women of the abilities of working women, the war years were responsible for other attitudinal changes.  A new consciousness you might say, had been raised and new expectations developed.  One satisfying aspect of work was the new sense of camaraderie among the women.  Mrs. Goral of Indiana remembers that when her mother worked at a defense plant the factory women associated more even during off hours.  Another more practical change resulted in new perceptions of unions.

Many local women who worked in the early period had expressed some hostility to unions.  They perceived union leaders as either troublemakers or meddlers.  Yet the women who had become involved in the large scale concerns of war industries often discovered that tan active union was a necessary ally.

Even more significant than the satisfactions of new interests and friendships outside the home was the impact of the paycheck itself.  For many women this was the first time extra cash filled their pocketbooks and as Mrs. Ila Murdick comments, it may not have been a great deal of money “…but it was big for them.”  In fact some women dared to suggest that the monetary motivation, not patriotism, was of paramount significance at that time.  As Mrs. Mabel McQuown, herself a former defense industry employee, remarks on the primary motivation of the women, “For most it was the money.”

Yet, in this picture, basic patriotism was not to be discounted.  Though women in the county were working in different jobs and in larger numbers than ever before, their ultimate goal was the war’s end and return of the soldiers.  Again and again patriotism is mentioned as the common denominator among them.  When the war ended they knew they would be out of a job.  As one former war worker said, “I don’t think anyone felt bad about losing a job.  They were happy that the war was over.”  Mrs. Carrolton Philippi of Marion Center remembers a story of one Indiana County woman who took a job replacing a man.  She used to joke that when he returned she would gladly give up her job and then marry the returning soldier.  That was exactly what happened.

For many women giving up their jobs was achieved just as smoothly and as happily. But there were others who felt differently.  They hoped to continue to work somewhere, somehow.  Unquestionably, the 1940s had altered the consciousness of Indiana Countians just as it had nationally.  The former attitude that women should work only before marriage or in widowhood had clearly diminished, to be replaced by a new appreciation of what women could contribute to the labor force.  Surely, a contemporary might report of that period if questioned “Yes, a lot more women went to work in those days.”